Craw, Rachael, The Rift, Walker Books, November 2018, 358 pp., RRP $19.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781760750025
Meg and her mother Cora return to the rather mysterious island called Black Water after an absence of nine years. The island is home to a herd of deer the horns of which contain a substance with extraordinary healing powers. Black Water Island is also home to a special group of people chosen to be Rangers to protect the herd, particularly from the sinister and ferocious Rift Hounds which can appear from another world when the balance on the island is disrupted and a ‘rift’ opens between this world and theirs. Meg and Cal, one of the younger Rangers, have both been bitten by these hounds in the past and the bites bestow special powers on those who receive them. Each of the Rangers has a familiar, or animal guide, to help them and Meg finds she can communicate with Reeva, Cal’s familiar, a raven. As they are thrown together in the time approaching the annual deer cull, they find themselves increasingly attracted to each other. Coming on to the island in time for the cull are the sinister figures from Nutris Pharmaceuticals. They are there as part of the treaty they have with the islanders in order to help preserve the Old Herd, a treaty which allows them to collect valuable pharmaceutical material from other deer.
However, on this occasion Meg and Cal realise that there is more to Nutris’s visit this time than usual. A chemical experiment is being undertaken which allows a kind of reincarnation of the deer that have been killed – they become terrifying ‘living dead’. Their presence is the stuff of nightmares. A group of young Rangers, including Cal and Meg, have an altercation with some of the Nutris staff who are absolutely ruthless in their quest. The topic of animal experimentation and scientific ethics is not explored in depth but it is certainly there for young readers to consider as the Nutris personnel are constructed as on the side of criminality and unscrupulous profit-making.
The story is full of female heroes, not just Meg but other younger Rangers, as well as senior Rangers and some of the townsfolk. Women play an equal role in this community, although the Head Ranger (and his possible successor) are men. The Head Ranger has ultimate decision-making power and his is a coveted position and, when this book is set, Meg’s father holds that position. But is he who he really appears to be? It is only later, on the mountain during the battle that Meg realises the truth.
The battle on the mountain is a test for the younger Rangers, some of whom have special gifts which help in the fight against the Rift Hounds which are invisible to many. Their ferocity is legendary and the battle against them is like a mythic fight in the old hero tales. There is a palpable feeling of menace from the unseen enemy, a menace increased by the presence of some of the ‘living dead’ animals.
Cal is an excellent tracker; this is one of his gifts which is to be utilised on the mountain. But in another exploration of an ongoing societal issue, he is not always appreciated by others, however, some of whom are jealous of his position. He is a fisherman’s son, and fishermen’s sons do not normally become Rangers. His difference is often commented on and resented by some of the others and he is the subject of bullying. The characterisation is generally strong with each character’s strengths, insecurities and personalities fleshed out in such a way as to ive us a rounded picture of them.
The book interweaves a strong sense of place, magical realism, elements from European folklore such as the animal guides and a kind of coming-of-age story as Cal and Meg begin to come to terms with their gifts, with each other and with the directions in which their lives are going. The ending leaves the way open for a sequel as what Cal and Meg might do next isn’t resolved and the role of the Head Ranger has not been announced. Will it be Cal as others want him to be, but he does not?
This is a fast-paced novel with suspense and intrigue a-plenty, as well as explorations of family relationships, teenage love and heroics all cleverly interwoven. It will keep its readers fascinated until the end.
Reviewed by Margot Hillel